Making friends at Happy Valley Racecourse.

These gamblers are messy, I thought, as I searched for place to sit and watch the next race on the program at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Racecourse. There was the usual detritus of betting stubs and plastic cups scattered over the ground, but what stood out were the newspapers left lying on the empty seats in the grandstand; lots of them.

Can’t they find a bin? Better still, a recycling bin.

I should have been used to rubbish and poor hygiene by now, because I’d spent two months in China before arriving in the Fragrant Harbour, but I was still surprised that punters had made absolutely no effort to put their form guides in the bin – or take them home to study.

The race was about to start and I wanted to sit down. I had no money riding on the result and had no idea how to place a bet at the course even if I’d wanted to – it looked complicated.

I was at Happy Valley for the spectacle and the experience. Horse racing is famous in Hong Kong and some of the world’s best jockeys, trainers and horses descend upon the track every year in search of a big pay day. It’s also a convenient place for expats to socialise and have a few drinks after work. Most of the revellers probably didn’t even look at a horse all evening.

I’d spent some time wandering the facility and observing a few of the horses in the mounting yard, and just watching the goings on at this internationally famous course. Then I decided that I really should watch a horse race if I am at a racecourse.

The upper tier of the grandstand seemed to offer the best view of the whole course, so I climbed the steps and searched for a seat near the betting counters. That’s when I noticed the newspapers. There was enough litter to rival a school playground.

I searched and searched for a seat at the top few rows, but most of the seats that were not occupied by a person were occupied by a newspaper.

Easy, I thought. I’ll just move a newspaper.

So I did, and I planted myself on a seat with an acceptable view of the course and the impending race. The announcer listed the names of the horses and the tension grew in the grandstand. The revelling expats below continued drinking and chatting obliviously but the real racing fans chewed their nails and focussed intently on the track.

The final horse was led into the starting gates and the starter was at the ready. Punters held their breath.

Racing…

Then I heard a voice behind me. I didn’t understand the language, I did understand the tone. I turned around to see a middle-aged local man gesturing angrily in my direction. Gesturing angrily at me.

What had I done?

The ear bashing continued and the gesticulations became more animated. I had really annoyed this guy and he was not happy. He glared at me between panicked glances at the race that was well underway and was now being led by the horse in the pink vest with black sleeves, ahead of the jockey sporting and black and white check with purple helmet. The colours meant nothing to me but they clearly meant something to my new friend who was now highly agitated.

He continued berating me and I still had no idea why.

Then he advanced towards me, pushed past me and grabbed the newspapers I had moved just minutes ago. He snatched at the paper which was open at the form guide and scanned it as if to see whether any alterations had been made. He appeared satisified. Satisfied at the state of the paper, but not satisfied with me. He was still very angry.

After further verbal admonition and much bilingual gesturing, he had conveyed to me that leaving a newspaper on the seat was the accepted method of reserving a seat at Happy Valley Racecourse.

Thou shalt not move the punter’s paper

Hence the abundance of newpapers.

Oooops.

I apologised profusely and politely. I know he didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Cantonese, but I think my words and my guilty countenance broke through the language barrier.

I don’t know much about racing but I know that very serious money is gambled at Hong Kong races, and I had to assume that the gentleman I had upset was one of the people risking some of this serious money. I wonder how much he’d bet on that race.

Scolded and contrite, I left my seat and I left my new-found friend to contemplate his fate and his bank balance. The black and white checked shirt crossed the line first but I didn’t hang around to see if this was good news or bad news for my new buddy.

I strolled among the crowd of expats and heard familiar smatterings of intoxicated British and Australian accents. I watched the next race from the safety of the expat throng, then I decided to leave the course because I heard smatterings of intoxicated British and Australian accents.